November 09, 2010

"Uncrackable" G2 Android Phone Successfully and Permanently Rooted -- and Why This Matters!

Greetings. Almost exactly a month ago, in New Android Phone (Falsely) Accused of Containing a "Malicious Root Kit" -- I noted the situation with the new T-Mobile G2 Android phone (aka HTC Vision), where a new protection scheme had been employed by the manufacturer to (try) prevent "rooting" (also known as "jailbreaking"). I also expressed my hope that "permanent rooting" efforts in progress would be successful.

As I discussed, I view having complete control over my cell phones as being important for privacy and security reasons -- and in terms of overall user freedoms as well. A "locked-down" device cannot be relied upon to run the systems and applications of users' choosing. And while there are certainly those persons who disagree with me on this point, I consider these freedoms to be extremely important in an age of ever increasing and widely distributed technologies.

So I'm very pleased to report that as of this morning, the G2 has been successfully and permanently rooted, opening the door to specialized applications and the running of the excellent CyanogenMod enhanced systems. Incredible work guys!

As it turns out, it was quickly established that the G2 was not using a firmware rewrite system, but rather was employing the protected mode of JEDEC Embedded MMC memory (eMMC). Temporary rooting of the device was possible from early on since the underlying Linux kernel was caching changes related to user root attempts, but the eMMC protection mechanism was preventing those changes from ever being successfully written to flash system memory -- so all such changes were lost at the next boot of the phone.

For the last month I've been lurking on various Web sites and a key IRC channel, watching a core group of dedicated hackers (and I'm using "hackers" in the original, positive sense of the word), as they gradually teased their way into the phone's systems -- truly a joy to watch. One individual in particular, with a "handle" that would be recognized by any fan of the original "Star Trek" series, deserves special commendation indeed.

The level of technical expertise exhibited by this group is extraordinary. And no matter how much you think you know about these systems, it's definitely a learning experience to view these reverse-engineering efforts in progress. (By the way, did you know that many modern cell phones' radio modems can be controlled via a superset of the ancient -- more than 30 years old! -- Hayes modem "AT" command set? Yep. True innovation can live a long life indeed!)

It seems likely that this same basic rooting technique will be useful -- at least for now -- when dealing with some other new HTC Android phones hitting the streets.

I'm not suggesting that everyone needs to root their cell phones. There are operational risks in doing so -- such as the possibility of "bricking" your phone (making it nonoperational) if you screw up. Nor does everyone need the ability to run the sorts of applications and systems that require rooting.

That being said, I do consider having the choice of running such software to be an important one, and the concept of devices that lock out user choice is frankly offensive to me.

The conflicting world views represented by various flavors of closed systems -- vs. open systems -- will certainly trigger continuing struggles, not just in the mobile device world, but in technology generally as we move toward ever more complex and "cloud-aware" systems.

But to distill this all down to a simple sound bite, as far as consumers of technology are concerned:

"Open Wins."


Posted by Lauren at November 9, 2010 11:42 AM | Permalink
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